NYFOS@Caramoor 2024: The Concerts

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published March 25, 2024

Even when a project has been satisfying, there can be a certain pleasure when it’s over. The release from all that intensity is sometimes just as beneficial as the joy of the music. Still, I admit that it has been a little hard to say goodbye to Eros & Co. The work we did felt deep and essential, and all week I felt as if I were watching one of those nature videos where you see a flower blossoming in fast-motion. By the time we were onstage, Amber and the four singers were flying very high. It would be condescending (and boastful) to say they were “transformed,” since their first readings had been at such a high level. But the freedom with which everyone made music, first at Caramoor and even more in New York, was staggering. Something definitely happened last week, something wonderful. 
I had a quiet breakthrough of my own. In recent years I’ve been working on balancing technical concerns with artistic ones. When I was younger I was pure id, a Flower Child of the piano following my impulses wherever they led me. This was the do-your-own-thing 70s, and the watchword was “Who says you have to do it the way everyone else has done it before?” I didn’t go to a conservatory and I was also working with a lot of actors, so impulse, not scholarship, was my guide. Every time I tried to be “correct” to impress a colleague (or a critic), my musical pilot light went out and I became a very dull boy.
My Tarzan-like innocence got challenged when I began to work at Juilliard in the early 90s—just a few years after NYFOS became a going concern. I still played things my own way, but now I had to acknowledge the traditions, and teach them if necessary, if I was going to break them. Later on I faced another challenge: by the year 2008 muscular dystrophy began to make inroads on my devil-may-care approach to the 88s. As time went by, my brain became more and more besieged with orders from every direction, some artistic, some physical, some interpretive, some technical—“Keep your elbow close to your ribs!” “There’s no ritard marked, try not to slow down!” “You need a lemon-yellow timbre to start this song, and smoky azure for page 4!” “If you don’t get your 4th finger on the F-natural right now you’re going to pay a big price!” “This song is about a playful young man, it needs rhythmic lift!” 
As you can see, there was a lot of screaming in in my head as I played. But on Sunday and Tuesday I was able to calm my mind more than I had in quite some time. I wasn’t spaced out, I wasn’t in la-la-land, but I also wasn’t in bad-cop “play-the-effing-notes” land. For a few hours I experienced a bit of mind-and-body harmony. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I played perfectly (and I beat myself up for every mistake), but in the moment I was able to access my emotional connection to each song while simultaneously running my piano-playing machine. I don’t want to jinx it, so I can’t explain it more fully. Let’s just say that I felt as if I were at the beginning of a new chapter of my life as an instrumentalist. 
Both performances went great. Some highlights: Scott Rubén La Marca was in full balladeer mode, singing with the kind of sweetness that breaks your heart. He also took his French operetta waltz song to a new level of lunacy, whipping off his jacket for verse 2 and introducing a pelvic twist we hadn’t seen before. Michael Hawk showed us an almost Wagnerian majesty in his Wolf song, and the wit of Nathan Lane in his Porter tune. This especially touched me because I last played it about forty year ago for Peter Evans, the first of my friends to die of AIDS (and my very first boyfriend years earlier). Michael was as good a song-and-dance man as Peter, and that is saying something. (It was uncanny how similar some of his acting choices were to my late friend’s.)
Shan Hai’s astounding high D in her Milhaud song wowed the audience—but that was predictable. I was most touched by the way she created the hushed, rapturous atmosphere in Granados’s “Mañanita era,” with a vocal spin we’d been working towards all week. And Sophia Baete got an ovation for one of her least showy songs—Toldrà’s “Madre, unos ojueios vi”—because of the sheer class of her phrasing and her timbre. (I remember Michael’s response to hearing Sophia sing the first verse of the John Dankworth tune—“That’s not fair, do we have to sing after that?”)
I have written little about Amber Scherer, our pianist, because she worked primarily with Bénédicte all week. They shared a piano and spent most of the rehearsals smooshed into the tiny area stage left. I felt a bit like an intruder. But from time to time I was able to work with Amber, and I could tell she was intrigued by the way I did things. She seemed a little shy musically at the beginning of the week, but by Sunday she was tearing into her songs with real flair and style—gravitas for the Wolf song, flouncy languor for the operetta piece, perfect musical manners for Schubert and Beethoven, plenty of color for the Spanish. 

We’re all back in our lives now. But the Caramoor flavor lasts. Cupid’s dart has cast its spell on me—an enchantment I cherish. My colleagues are in my heart forever, and so is their music. 

PICTURED: surrounded by Shan Hai, Sophia Baete, Bénédicte Jourdois, Scott Rubén La Marca, and Michael Hawk

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and has contributed many Song of the Day entries.


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